Dead died, his skull blown to bits and fragments of his brain strewn all over the room. Dead, aka Per Yngve Ohlin, singer for the black-metal band Mayhem, killed himself living up to his nom de rock. But Dead was no Kurt Cobain copycat. Like Nirvana, Mayhem set off a musical revolution, attracting others to play according to their rules and gaining a dedicated following among youthful fans. But when the 21-year-old Dead aimed the shotgun at his head in 1991, Cobain was just attaining the superstar status that would haunt him to death. Dead's suicide note had none of Cobain's hyperromanticism, and no Neil Young lyrics either. Dead's missive merely read: "Excuse all the blood."
Also unlike Cobain, Dead was just the singer. The driving force behind Mayhem, and behind black metal in general, was Euronymous, aka Oystein Aarseth. Euronymous played guitar in Mayhem and put out black-metal records on his own label. Though he'd been playing dark underground metal since the mid-80s, the record store he opened in Oslo not long after Dead's death--Helvete, which means "hell": these guys are good with names--became ground zero for the belated eruption of the genre. Genre, hell! Black metal was a scene, political movement, and religious outcropping, packaged with its own sound track--a movie waiting to be made, or at least a book waiting to be written.
Upon finding Dead dead, Euronymous's initial response was to run and get a camera. After his photo frenzy, he retrieved pieces of Dead's head, and it's said that he may have eaten the soft tissue. Such gory details are duly noted by Michael Moynihan, a west-coast music writer and musician (Boyd Rice's Non, Blood Axis), and Didrik Soderlind, and associate editor of Norwegian Playboy, in their brand-new book, Lords of Chaos. Like Euronymous with his camera, the authors document; they neither blatantly condone nor condemn the exploits and ideas of black metal's founders, many of whom are pictured with their faces painted like corpse, Kiss via King Diamond. (Also among the numerous photograph is Euronymous's Dead shot.) The text is based on extensive interviews with the musicians, some now dead and others serving prison time for one felony or another.
But for a history, Lords of Chaos is historically shortsighted: the authors' descriptions are clear, but they fail to name what they see. A perfectly adequate, if not exquisitely precise term for it would be decadence, which in the last century referred to that French post-Romantic movement whose hyperaesthetic members were known for their sensational behavior, perverse and morbid tastes, and interest in fantastic lore and things medieval. Lords of Chaos delineates a decidedly decadent movement.
Moynihan and Soderlind do look to broader history in their attempt to assess why black metal erupted in Norway, of all places: "The cultural legacy of Norwegian folk tales presents a grotesque world of trolls, witches, and foreboding forests," they write, but contemporary Norwegian society continually attempts to eradicate such roots. "Horror films from abroad are routinely censored in not banned outright. This taboo against violence and horror permeates every part of Norwegian media." The authors conclude that "the resulting void" may be responsible for black metal's appetite for violent and macabre imagery.
The 19yh-century decadents, too, rose in reaction to the liberal progressivism of their time. In a tirade against the emptiness of proper society the movement's leading light, Baudelaire, wrote, "If rape or arson, poison or the knife / Has wove no pleasing patterns in the stuff / Of this drab canvas we accept as life / It is because we are not bold enough!"
Baudelaire also wrote, "Know me for Satan by this conquering grin, as monstrous as the Earth." Likewise, those who shopped in the black-walled Helvete and hung out in its dungeonlike basement flirted heavily with satanism. Black metal as a genre took its name from the 1982 song "Black Metal" by British thrashers Venom. But though Venom wedded their Motorheadbanging sound to over-the-top satanic lyrics, they were hardly dead serious about their demonic posturing. The Norwegians, on the other hand, weren't the least bit ironic, though their damnation of Christianity was: Norwegians have so thoroughly assimilated Christianity into their lives that, save some preachers paid by the state, hardly anyone is an active churchgoer.
In the later 80s, after Dead joined Mayhem and black-metal bands had begun multiplying around Oslo, Euronymous became fast friends with another smart, strong-willed musician: Count Grishnackh, aka Varg Vikernes, who hailed from Bergen, on the other side of Norway. Euronymous put out records by Vikernes's one-man band, Burzum. As the musicians' following grew, their ideas about society evolved--or perhaps devolved is the term--from satanism. Doing the original decadents one better, they took to propaganda of the deed: cemetary desecrations and church burnings. Norwegian churches, especially wooden stave churches built in the Middle Ages, burn well. Some of the guys, including Vikernes, went the roots route, so popular now, singing praises to the Norse gods that Christianity overthrew; to their exaltations of Odin they added New Agey nature appreciation and affirmations of racial purity.
Black metal's rap sheet, too, took a turn for the worse. It came to include not only suicide but murder. The most important victim was Euronymous himself, who was found outside his apartment in 1993, stabbed 23 times. His was a murder without mystery: the perpetrator, Vikernes, bragged about it.
Black metal is "in many ways entirely defined by the dramatic personalities who have composed it," Moynihan and Soderlind write. Indeed, death has always been a great rock career move, and the murderous mayhem of these naughty Nordics received ample coverage in metal magazines and on the multitude of metal Web sites. (There's even an enthusiastic guide to "Who's Killing Whom" in black metal at home.dti.net/ianc/metal.html.) Like the dangerous antics of gangsta rappers, murder became just more hype. Although Vikernes is serving a 21-year prison term, he has continued to record new music and grant interviews.
But some part of black metal's appeal, and for me all of it, is the sound. Black metal is self-contradicted--sonically exhilirating and lyrically mordant. And focused as they aer on deeds and ideologies, Moynihan and Soderlind are not especially concerned with the sound, though they helpfully append a music-resources page, listing names and addresses of record labels worldwide that specialize in black metal. (To supplement the book, novices might pick up the black-metal samplers recently released by American branches of European metal labels, especially Century Media's Firestarted and Nuclear Blast's Gods of Darkness.) Swirling layers of cosmic keyboard and guitar soundscaped, along with the shrill and guttural noises that pass for vocals, make for an energizing yet soothing cacophony. Black metal's lyrics--though unfortunately not its deeds--are erased by its raspy screams.
From an aesthetic perspective, rather than the sociopolitical viewpoint of Moynihan and Soderlind, black metal is best understood again through the words of Baudelaire, who provided the phrase that definitively describes it, in the title of his book of poems Les fleurs du mal. Flowers of evil--the juxtaposition of beauty and wickedness, the exquisite fruits of corruption.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs of Varg Vikernes, Dead, and the cover of Lords of Chaos.